SkooveLearn PianoDownload on the App Store
Install Now

What are musical modes and how do they function?

musical modes

Modes are part of the basic building blocks of Western music theory. If you’ve ever heard a music teacher talk about modes you may well have noticed that they all have Greek names. These musical modes come from the earliest days of music history. Put simply, a mode is a type of scale, just like in the song ‘doh re mi fa so la ti do’ from The Sound of Music. If we change just one of these notes, we can call the scale a mode. Each mode evokes its own mood and has a unique color and sound. In fact, you probably know a lot more about modes than you realize.

Key takeaways

  • There are seven main types of musical mode in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
  • Each musical mode has its own distinct set of characteristics: some sound major, some sound more like minor; some sound happy, some sound sadder.
  • Like a lot of Western music, the modes have their roots in church music. But today they are used across a wide range of musical styles – from film music and orchestral works to pop, rock, jazz, and beyond.
Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
1 month free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!

What are musical modes?

Modes in music are scale-like patterns that can begin on any note of the scale, not just the root. Each mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) has a distinct characteristic. These modes come from the earliest forms of Western music; in fact, almost all musical modes can be traced back to Ancient Greece. As you learn the piano modes will play an increasingly important role.

What are the differences between scales & modes?

While the terms scale and mode can be used fairly interchangeably on the piano, the reality is a little more complicated.

A piano scale is a set of notes within an octave arranged in sequential order by their pitch. The ascending or descending interval relationships among the pitches define each scale. From this relationship, we can derive a generic formula to transpose the scales onto different piano keys. Moreover, the notes from a scale form melodies and harmonies.

Scales are an ordered set of notes with a clear start and end point. For example, C major starts on C and ends on the C an octave higher. But because the C major scale has seven distinct pitches, it is possible to build seven different modes on the major scale. For example, if we take the notes of the C major scale, also known as the Ionian mode (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C), keep this same set of pitches but begin the sequence from the second scale degree (D –E – F – G – A – B – C – D), we have just created the second mode (known as the Dorian mode).

History of musical modes

Musical modes have been around long before the major or minor scales were developed. They originated in Ancient Greece where the modes were named after different regions. The Ancient Greek modes were slightly different to those of more recent centuries: some names are the same (like Mixolydian or Dorian) but others are slightly different (like Hypolydian or Hypophrygian). Plato and Aristotle wrote about modes and how each one could evoke a different mood or character.

There is a common misconception that church modes of medieval Europe were direct descendants of these Ancient Greek modes. But the church modes were in fact developed in the ninth century. These modes were heavily used in church music, especially in what is known as Gregorian Chant music. Over time, these Gregorian modes were gradually replaced by chromatic scales and diatonic scales (also known as diatonic modes). Certainly, from the time of J. S. Bach onwards most music was written in keys (for example, C major, D minor etc.). But today, modes are making a comeback, particularly in the field of jazz music, due to the unusual and otherworldly sounds that jazz modes can create.

The seven modes of the major scale

In modern Western music there are seven modes, each deriving its name from a geographical area of Ancient Greece. Each musical mode evokes a particular mood or feeling.

Ionian mode

The Ionian mode is exactly the same as a major scale. One of the first scales you will learn on piano is the C major scale as its notes all occur on white keys (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C). So if you’ve learned the C major scale, you already know the Ionian mode!

Because it’s exactly the same as a major scale, most pop songs are written in the Ionian mode.

Ionian mode

Ionian mode

Dorian mode

The Dorian mode is the second mode. If we take all the pitches of the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C) and begin the scale from D, we get D – E – F – G – A – B – C– D, which are the notes of the Dorian mode.

The song ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson uses the Dorian mode.

dorian mode

Dorian mode

Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode is the third mode. Again, it is very similar to the natural minor scale (see Aeolian mode), except the second scale degree is a minor second above the tonic rather than a major second. To build the Phrygian mode take all the pitches of the C major scale and begin from E (E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E).

The song ‘London Calling’ by The Clash uses the Phrygian mode.

Phrygian mode

Phrygian mode

Lydian mode

The Lydian mode is the fourth mode. If we take the pitches of the C major scale and begin on F, we find that the Lydian mode is spelled F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F. You will notice that it is very similar to the major scale (see Ionian mode); the only difference is the fourth scale degree, which in the Lydian mode is an augmented fourth above the tonic rather than a perfect fourth.

The theme tune to the TV show The Simpsons uses the Lydian mode.

Lydian mode

Lydian mode

Mixolydian mode

The Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode. Again, this is very similar to the major scale (see Ionian mode), except the seventh scale degree is a minor seventh above the tonic rather than a major seventh. The easiest way to build the Mixolydian mode is to take the pitches of the C major scale and begin from G (G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G). The Mixolydian mode is used in a lot of chord progressions, especially between the tonic and dominant. As such, it can be found in most forms of popular music.

The songs ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N Roses and ‘Norwegian Wood’ by The Beatles use the Mixolydian mode.

Mixolydian mode

Aeolian mode

The Aeolian mode is the sixth mode. It is more commonly called the natural minor scale. The example composed of natural notes begins on A and is therefore called the A natural-minor scale. It consists of the notes A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A. Many popular songs written in a minor key use the Aeolian mode. If you’re ever trying to compose a piece of music, the Aeolian mode is a good place to start.

The songs ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ by Gotye and ‘Losing my Religion’ by R.E.M. use the Aeolian mode.

Aeolian mode

Aeolian mode

Locrian mode

The Locrian mode is the seventh mode. If we use all the pitches of the C major scale but begin from B, the scale will be built as follows: B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B. Its distinctive feature is the fifth degree of the scale – it creates an interval known as a diminished fifth. The Locrian is the least used but it nonetheless has a wonderful and enigmatic character that’s well worth exploring.

The song ‘Army of Me’ by Björk is a rare example of a pop song written in the Locrian mode.

Locrian mode

Locrian mode

The parent scale: how do I find any mode?

The above descriptions and diagrams have just shown you how to use the parent scale method to build modes. As long as you know its number in the order (reminder: 1st – Ionian; 2nd – Dorian; 3rd – Phrygian; 4th – Lydian; 5th – Mixolydian; 6th – Aeolian; 7th – Locrian) you can build any mode.

You just have to count backwards to the major parent scale to determine the structure of the mode.

For example, D Mixolydian. Mixolydian is the 5th mode. D is the fifth scale degree of G major. So D Mixolydian is simply the 8-note scale beginning and ending on D with the same formula as G major. That is: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C – D.

Famous songs that use musical modes

Of course, countless famous songs are written in the Ionian mode (the major scale). The song ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel is one of many that you can learn, but you’ll find countless other examples of songs that use the Ionian mode on the Skoove App.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Aeolian is probably the second most used mode in pop and dance music, because it is the same as the natural minor scale. Here on Skoove you can learn how to play the natural minor scale in the song ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

On the Skoove App you can learn how to But it can also be heard in songs of great powerful expression such as ‘Fallin’ by Alicia Keys, which you can learn to play right here on Skoove.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

The Mixolydian mode is great when it comes to playing blues music. The mixolydian scales use all the tones that make up a dominant 7th chord – the chord type that is used in most blues chord progressions (for example A7, D7, E7 etc.). You can learn more about the dominant 7th chord by playing the song ‘Bouncy Boogie’ on Skoove. As an extension to this lesson try incorporating some of the notes from the Mixolydian mode:

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

The song ‘Praise You’ by Fatboy Slim also makes use of the Mixolydian mode. You can learn how to play it right here on the Skoove App!

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Kraftwerk’s hit song ‘Das Model’ is a really interesting song to learn, because it uses a combination of modes. You can learn how to play this song here on Skoove. See if you can notice how it begins in the Aeolian mode (there is no F or F# in the melody), but then it moves to the Dorian mode in the middle section.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Incorporating modes into my piano playing

Of course, the best way to study and learn more about musical modes is to have a keyboard in front of you. If you can’t access a physical keyboard, try using a virtual piano.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a piece of classical or popular music on the piano, then it’s very likely that you’ve had more experience of playing modes than you think! By trying out all sorts of different modes on your virtual piano you’ll become more and more aware of how the mode forms the foundations of the melody and how you can anticipate what each mode will do.

Additionally, playing the modes themselves on the keyboard and understanding the distance between the notes in each mode will help your ear become more accustomed to the unique characteristics and moods of each mode.

Musical modes have been around since the very earliest days of music history for good reason. They continue to serve a multitude of functions in church music, classical music, and jazz.
Learn more about the uses and functions of musical modes by signing up to a free trial of Skoove today!

Start free trial

 


Author of this blog post:

Sam Girling is a percussion and piano teacher, writer, an researcher based in Münster, Germany and Auckland, New Zealand. He has performed extensively in New Zealand and Europe, lectures on a variety of music history and theory topics, and has published several academic articles and musical scores. Sam has taught music in a variety of contexts, from primary schools through to university level.

Share this article

Share this article

Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
1 month free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!